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Why the Paper of Record Hates Cartoons

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Utopias are defined as much by what they exclude as by their promises of plenitude. Plato dreamed of an ideal republic free of pestilent poets. The editors of The New York Times, more mundanely but equally tellingly, aspire to a newspaper that employs no cartoonists. In the wake of a controversy over the international edition of the Times running a cartoon of Benjamin Netanyahu that was widely condemned as anti-Semitic, the newspaper severed its relationship with the syndicate that supplied the offending image and now has let go of the services of two in-house cartoonists, Patrick Chappatte and Heng Kim Song.

Speaking for many in his profession, Joel Pett, a Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial cartoonist for Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader, decried the decision as “chickenshit and cowardly.” More politely, CNN’s Jake Tapper told The Daily Beast that this was “just one more nail in the coffin of what is a struggling art form, given how corporate America has taken over local newspapers and gutted the industry.”

It’s undeniable that editorial cartooning, even more than journalism as a whole, is in crisis. A 2012 report by the Herblock Foundation found that there were fewer than 40 editorial cartoonists with newspaper-staff jobs in America, a steep decline from more than 2,000 such positions in the beginning of the 20th century. The situation has gotten only more dire since that report, with the high-profile firing of Rob Rogers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for penning anti-Trump cartoons. Newspaper editorial cartooning is well on the path to extinction, a dire end for a vital art that has been inextricable from modern political protest.

Times editorial-page editor James Bennet, also speaking to The Daily Beast, denies that the move was an outgrowth of the Netanyahu cartoon (although, inconsistently, he admits that canceling the subscription service sped up the decision to let go of Chappatte and Heng). Bennet maintains that he’s been thinking of axing cartoons from the paper for more than a year. If so, that makes Bennet and the Times look worse, since this was not an individual act of poltroonery but a more systematic aversion to visual satire. In recent years, other newspapers have fired cartoonists for economic reasons or because they did work that offended readers. But the Times (contra President Trump) isn’t failing economically. Nor did Chappatte and Heng do offensive work. They were fired simply because Times editors have an antipathy to editorial cartooning.

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